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The Religious Crisis in Vietnam.
Lâm Lễ Trinh
Edior’s note: Dr Lâm Lễ Trinh is currently the Editor-in-chief of the Huam Rights / Droits de l’Homme Quarterly published in French and English


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Shortly after President Clinton’s visit, Secretary-General Lê Khả Phiêu , warned the National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) against the "machinations of the enemies of the Republic aiming at destroying socialism". The struggle, he said, had become "inexorable and complex". Just before Christmas, Head of State Trần Đức Lương denounced "destructive hostile powers" on the front page of the daily Nhaân Daân and promised that "The Party and the Government will sweep away all maneuvers of peaceful evolution and all foreign-led movements for religious freedom". And in January, speaking to the annual meeting of national security agents, Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải explained that "the adversaries of the regime are using religious and minority groups to stir trouble." It looks like religion will be the nemesis of socialism in Vietnam and Hanoi knows it. And although the Vietnamese Constitution guarantees religious freedom, the regime has declared war on religious groups. "The policy of religious freedom as practiced by the communist government is the noose that strangles our religion," stated Mgr Nguyễn Kim Điền , archbishop of Hue. This statement applies equally to all other religious groups in Viet Nam today.



The Churches are fighting back, making new demands, using new methods

The religious card had been one of the Communists’ main weapons in bringing down the First and Second Republics of South Vietnam, so it is ironic that they should turn against religious groups after reunification. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, and for the last twenty five years, these churches, with their followers, clergy and real estate, have been the only organized structures other than the Party. For a quarter of century, the Catholics, Buddhists, Protestants, Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo have endured harsh repression and their methods of resistance have evolved. They have a great psychological asset – the people’s deep alienation from the atheist socialist regime. The Vietnamese are deeply moral and spiritual and religion is a natural part of their being.

Tensions between the Party and the churches have been increasing and at the end of 2000, reached boiling point. Religious groups were prevented from coming to the rescue of the victims of flooding in Central Vietnam and the Mekong delta. Protestant montagnards were forcibly moved from their homes and their churches destroyed. Several Buddhist leaders were forbidden to move and preach freely. Hoa Hao pilgrims on their way to their Holy Land, An Giang, to commemorate the 81st anniversary of the death of their leader Huyønh Phuù Soå, murdered on Hồ Chí Minh's orders, were brutally stopped by local security forces. Many were beaten and arrested. Several Hoa Hao threatened hunger strike and self-immolation. In the Cao Đài Mecca of Tây Ninh, the VCP enthroned 1,400 dignitaries of its own choosing, although the Cao Đài rite prescribes the appointment of its high officials by means of the Turning Table. The official Cao Đài Church is replaced by a Leadership Committee picked by the Party.

On December 24, Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải signed an executive order to nationalize 50 hectares of land belonging to the Trappist Monastery of Thieân An near Hueá. 13 priests, 75 novices, 23 interns and 30 applicants are thereby evicted. Exactly a month earlier, Father Nguyễn Văn Lý, from Nguyệt Biều, in Thừa Thiên province, who had been imprisoned twice by the Communists, exhorted his 200 parishioners to call for religious freedom and the restoration by local authorities of 1,500 square meters of confiscated parish land. Father Lý beseeched Catholic leaders to stop collaborating with the Communists until real religious freedom is given. "Freedom of belief or Death!" screams a banner draped in front of the church at Nguyệt Biều. This protest campaign is different from previous ones in many ways: this is now a collective struggle, the demands are for property rights and basic freedoms, appeals are made for non-violence and solidarity between all religious groups. For these reasons, it immediately struck a chord and garnered wide support, including outside the country, thanks to the Internet.

On December 27, Father Lý, Father Chân Tín, the Venerable Thích Thiện Hạnh, and Lê Quang Liêm, the Hòa Hảo leader, jointly signed a statement demanding freedom of religion and calling for international support. Abroad, a committee is formed by representatives of several religious groups. Vietnamese immigrants in a number of countries show their support by organizing public demonstrations, seminars and prayer vigils.

Two of the co-signers, Father Chaân Tín and the Hòa Hảo leader Lê Quang Liêm had co-signed a similar proclamation on September 5 of the previous year, together with the Venerable Thich Quang Độ and the Cao Đài leader Trần Quang Châu. In that proclamation, they asked Hanoi to abolish article 4 of the Constitution (which establishes the dictatorship of the VCP) as well as administrative texts limiting religious freedom.

The proclamation of December 2000 denounces the anti-religious policies of the VCP (confiscation of church properties, suppression of cultural activities, detention of church followers, infiltration and sabotage, establishment of state-run entities within church structures, defamation of clergies…). It also demands real freedom of religion and belief, including the freedom to select and appoint religious officials without outside interference; the restoration of nationalized cultural properties; an immediate end to all measures aimed at limiting sacerdotal activities; the release of all religious personnel held without trial; and the respect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 16 December 1966 signed by Hanoi on September 24 1982.

This time, the campaign has many resources at its disposal: radio, television, telephone and Internet. The "Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam" (CRFV), the "Committed Vietnamese Youth" network in Australia and the Buddhism and Hoa Hao websites in California are all very active and give daily bulletins about the campaign.





Beware new Communist tactics

Economic regression, the danger of deviationism within the ranks of the People’s Army, the growing opposition of the churches and the alienation of the young generation from socialism are all insurmountable problems for the VCP. Having failed to nationalize religion and bring about an ideological rebirth, the Party is trying a handful of new tactics.





A - In the area of religion

Hanoi is encouraging the establishment of several Zen centers in Vietnam and abroad. Zen is an important Buddhist school which originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the 7th Century, and which stresses the teaching of the student by his master over the scriptures. Vietnamese Zen is supposedly apolitical but it is a creature of Communism, and its covert aim is to distract the Vietnamese from their struggle for democracy. While restricting the activities of the traditional churches to the maximum, the government bestows a large number of privileges on the head of the Vietnamese Zen movement. His monumental temples are built everywhere. He can move and teach freely around the country and is allowed to travel abroad to proselytize to the Vietnamese diaspora. He refuses to go wherever the nationalist flag is displayed. In his sermons, he never mentions the lack of basic freedoms in Vietnam. He also never takes part, directly or indirectly, in relief actions for flood victims or in actions for the protection of human rights. The Politburo has found in him and his church the perfect supporters of their underhand policy for national reconciliation. His church is there to counterbalance the influence of the religious groups hostile to the government.

Hanoi learned its lesson from China. Following in Beijing’s footsteps, it has outlawed the Falun Gong movement. Falun Gong is a Zen movement created by Li Hongzi in 1992. It was successively called Xulian, Qigong and finally Falun Gong or Falun Dafa. Its stated objective is spiritual and physical improvement through the combined practices of Zen, taichi, Taoist and Buddhist precepts and Li Hongzi’s personal ideas. It garnered an enormous following in a very short time and the latest statistics show that it now has 100 million followers, including 70 million in China (more than the membership of the Chinese Communist Party). The rest are scattered throughout Asia, Europe and America. Falun Gong followers deny that they are a religion, a sect or a cult. They like to think of themselves as a network for the free dissemination of information (especially via the Internet) and of several types of exercise. There is no formal structure and hierarchy, no membership list, and the movement is volunteer-based. In April 1999, Falun Gong organized huge demonstrations over several days in Tienanmen Square to peaceful demand freedom of religion and expression. Tens of thousands of the movement’s followers turned up. The demonstrations spread to thirty other cities. Stunned, President Jian Zenming declared Falun Gong public enemy no. 1 and accused the movement of stealing state secrets and of using superstition to trick people. On July 23, 1997, Li Hongzi appealed to the world for help. A week later, he asked for political asylum in the United States. In a recent statement, Falun Gong declared that no less than 50,000 of its faithful were being detained in China, and that 24 had died in detention. This non-violent movement which has mobilized huge crowds through sheer spiritual strength represents a serious threat to the Chinese government, and its fight against oppression is being closely followed by a sympathetic international audience.



B - In the area of youth organizations

For many years now, the young generation – the last hope to revive socialism – has been slipping from the grasp of the Communists. The slogans about patriotism and sacrifice, abused and over-used, now sound hollow. Communist youth organizations struggle to maintain their membership. It was recently reported by the international media that the chief editor and his assistant at Tuổi Trẻ, a Marxist newspaper, had been fired for daring to publish the results of a survey in which only 37% of the young people in Vietnam named Uncle Ho as their hero.

To try and turn this around, the Politburo has tried to make membership of the Party more attractive. Party members are offered employment, children of high party officials are sent to study abroad in the hope that they will take over from their parents one day. The scout movement of Baden Powell is also experiencing a rebirth.

During colonial times, when political parties were being harassed by the French authorities, the young Vietnamese who wanted to fight for their country would find refuge in two officially recognized organizations: The General Association of Indochinese Students (AGEI in French), and the Federation of Vietnamese Scouts (FSVN in French). The scout movement was introduced by a teacher, Trần Văn Khắc (who passed away in Ottawa in 1990) with the help of Hoàng Đạo Thúy, also a teacher. The FSVN’s main objective was to produce responsible citizens with a high sense of honor and civic duty. More so than the AGEI, the FSVN gave rise to some of the best among the nationalist and communist leaders. Notable among them were Tạ Quang Bửu, the renowned scientist and educator, who served as Minister of Defence (he was one of the signatories of the Geneva Agreement of 1954) and Minister of Education under Hồ Chí Minh. The FSVN was dissolved after April 1975, its goods were confiscated and many of its leaders were sent to re-education camps. Before his death in 1990, Hoàng Đạo Thúy, a Party member, had tried without success to establish a Communist Scouting Association. In late 1991, Vũ Xuân Hoàng , Secretary of the Movement of Marxist Youth, approached the Asia-Pacific office of the Scout movement. The General Secretariat of the international movement did not follow up on this approach since the organization cannot give allegiance to a national entity.

After the troubled years of the revolution (1930-1946), the ensuing instability (1946-1955), and then continuous development in South Vietnam (1955-1975), the FSVN was finally banned by the Communists and forced to leave. The movement experienced a gradual rebirth, first in the refugee camps then in the host countries where the refugees have made their homes. In 1985, the Central Committee of Vietnamese Scouts was created. It is the umbrella organization for Vietnamese Scouts in the diaspora. The Committee sent a delegation to the 1998 Congress for the Asia-Pacific area which was attended by 150 nations. Today, over a thousand illegal Scouts are still secretly active around Saigon. Following President Clinton’s visit to Vietnam last November, Hanoi tried to jump-start a new Scout movement, thereby reviving its moribund youth organizations.





The cost of silence

Most Catholic priests have decided to side with Father Nguyễn Văn Lý. The Venerable Thích Thieän Haïnh has asked the Buddhists of Huế-Thừa Thiên to organize a week of prayers for freedom of religion and to commemorate the sacrifices made by combatants from the North and the South for the national cause. In the diaspora, many protests have taken place. But on the whole, senior church dignitaries have remained silent. This is most regrettable.

There have been two notable exceptions however. The first is an open letter sent on December 18 by Mgr.Trần Văn Hoài, founder of the World Movement of Lay Catholics, to the Catholic symposium in Orange County, California, on the matter of religious persecutions in Vietnam. In this document, Mgr. Hoài examines Father Nguyễn Văn Lý appeal, without hiding his unconditional support. Secondly, on January 1, the Network of Committed Vietnamese Youth in Australia publicly appealed to Cardinal Phạm Đình Tụng, the Bishops’ Conference and the Vietnamese priesthood, to take position and to "guide and advise them". Religious groups have a leading part to play in the struggle for democracy because they alone have ready-made structures, a vast network of followers and moral authority.



One last point: to speak about non-violence is one thing, to practice it is another. Non-violence is more than a political tactic, it is essentially a philosophy powerful enough to subjugate violence and totalitarianism. It is more complex than armed resistance because in order to make use of it, one needs to be more spiritual, more disciplined, more heroic. The faces and the means of execution of non-violence are many, ranging from boycotts to hunger strikes, from peaceful protests to civil disobedience, non-cooperation and the refusal to compromise. Mohandas K. Gandhi had said: "Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest wea[pon of destruction designed by the ingenuity of man."

Sporadic and isolated acts of opposition will not move Hanoi. The turning point will be when the exasperated masses rise and have to be put down. The security forces will then have to decide between siding with the people or saving the Party. Judging from the current situation, it looks like they will side with the people, like they did in the Soviet Union and other Marxist countries.

May this campaign to save the Vietnamese soul and the preservation of Vietnamese identity become a crusade, a Crusade for Non-Violence!






Lâm Lễ Trinh

* Ý Kiến Độc Giả